A Philippine air force C-130 airplane carrying combat troops crashed and exploded while landing in the southern Philippines Sunday. The crash killed approximately 43 army soldiers on board and three civilians on the ground in one of the worst disasters in the air force’s history.
A military spokesperson said a least 49 other soldiers were rescued with injuries and survived the fiery noontime crash into a coconut grove outside the Jolo airport in Sulu province, including some who managed to jump off the aircraft before it exploded and was gutted by fire, military officials said. Three of seven villagers who were hit on the ground died.
The aircraft had 96 people on board, including three pilots and five crew while the rest were army personnel, the military said, adding only five soldiers remained unaccounted for late Sunday. The pilots survived but were seriously injured, officials said.
The Lockheed C-130 Hercules was one of two ex-U.S. Air Force aircraft handed over to the Philippines as part of military assistance this year.
The aircraft originally took off from Manila with only a few passengers, including a two-star army general, Romeo Brawner Jr., who disembarked with his wife and three children in Cagayan de Oro city, where he’s set to become the new military regional commander on Monday. The army troops then boarded the C-130 in Cagayan de Oro for the flight to Sulu.
Brawner said he was stunned to learn that the plane he’d just flown on had crashed. “We’re very thankful that we were spared, but extremely sad that so many lost their lives,” Brawner told The Associated Press.
Soldiers jumped from airplane
Officials said the injured personnel were brought to a hospital in Sulu or flown to nearby Zamboanga city, and troops were continuing to search for the missing. “A number of soldiers were seen jumping out of the airplane before it hit the ground, sparing them from the explosion caused by the crash,” a military statement said, citing witnesses.
Initial pictures released by the military showed the tail section of the cargo airplane relatively intact. The other parts of the plane were burned or scattered in pieces in a clearing surrounded by coconut trees. Soldiers and other rescuers with stretchers were seen dashing to and from the smoke-shrouded crash site, where a dark gray smoke billowed shortly after impact.
The plane was transporting troops, many of them new soldiers who had just undergone basic training, from the southern Cagayan de Oro city for deployment in Sulu, officials said.
Military chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters that “the plane missed the runway and it was trying to regain power but failed and crashed.”
History of tragic disasters
An air force official told The AP that the Jolo runway is shorter than most others in the country, making it more difficult for pilots to adjust if an aircraft misses the landing spot. The official, who has flown military aircraft to and from Jolo several times, spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly.
Initial pictures showed that the weather was apparently fine in Sulu, although other parts of the Philippines were experiencing rains due to an approaching tropical depression. The airport in Sulu’s main town of Jolo is located a few kilometers (miles) from a mountainous area where troops have battled Abu Sayyaf militants.
Sunday’s crash comes as the limited number of military aircraft has been further strained, as the air force helped transport medical supplies, vaccines and protective equipment to far-flung island provinces amid spikes in COVID-19 infections.
The Philippine air force has a history of tragic disasters. One of its aircraft crashed in a rice field north of Manila in 1971, killing 40 military personnel. A recently delivered S-701 Blackhawk helicopter crashed more than a week ago near Clark freeport, a former U.S. air base, killing all six air force personnel on board.
The Philippine government has struggled for years to modernize its military, one of Asia’s least equipped, as it dealt with decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies and territorial rifts with China and other claimant countries in the South China Sea.